Tuesday, June 28


His books grace the bookshelves of my library and have been some of the most satisfying reads I've enjoyed over my lifetime, with his trilogy on the Civil War my favorite among them. Indeed, it was Foote, long before Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War gave him celebrity, who fostered my abiding interest in the War Between the States.

Now Shelby Foote is dead at age 88. He will be missed.

In "Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas" -- a compendium edited by Brian Lamb -- Shelby Foote wrote:

I have a strong belief that novelists have a great deal to teach historians about plotting, about character drawing, about other things, especially the concern about learning to be a good writer, which many historians don't bother to do.

I suspect I like to think of myself as a novelist because that's what I was for most of my life and that's the way I thought of myself, and I haven't changed. It pleases me when someone tells me what they like best is my novels. But I've faced the fact that I probably am more apt to be known for writing the three-volume history on the Civil War than for anything else.

On his craft:

I've always worked in the room where I usually sleep, so that I sleep near my desk, and the typewriter's over here. There's something about it. When I go somewhere else, like in the summer I'll go down the coast or something, I can't work away from home.

I'm not like D. H. lawrence, who could write anywhere and, in fact, never had a home. But to me it's a very deliberate thing. Five or six hundred words is a good day for me.

I write with a "dip pen," which causes all kinds of problems -- everything from finding blotters to pen points -- but it makes me take my time, and it gives me a real feeling of satisfaction.

But a dip pen, you have to dip it in ink and write three or four words and dip it again. It has a real influence on the way I write, so different not only from a typewriter but from using a pencil or a fountain pen.

After it's written, the 500 words every day, I set it aside to dry; then copy it off on a typewriter, make a typewritten copy of it, and then recopy on that until finally the day is over and I'm all the way satisfied with it, and I put it on the stack -- make a clean copy and put it on the stack. That way I don't have to engage in something that to me is a particular form of heartbreak, which is revision. I don't do that.

The day and his life are now over. Shelbe Foote died yesterday. I suspect neither his writing, nor his life, needed revision. I will miss him; but he lives in the books he wrote and they are his gifts to the nation.

POSTSCRIPT: Shelby Foote buried.